The echo of Marco’s footsteps mixed with the pattering of the rain as he stepped off the main road and into the alleyway. It seemed like it hadn’t stopped raining since she left.
He glanced at his watch again. Thirty minutes. He clutched the thick envelope in his pocket and climbed down a dimly lit stairwell halfway up the alley.
He knocked on the thick door at the bottom. Grey paint flaked away to reveal the wood grain beneath.
A slat in the door slid open. Blue eyes under a heavy brow stared out at him. “Whosit?”
Marco squeezed the envelope. With thirty minutes left he might be able to make it back to his house and find something else. Something easier. Something less valuable? said a voice in his head — a scratchy voice with a mocking tone.
“It’s Marco,” he said. “Marco Scattolini? I’ve… I’ve come to pay.”
The slat slammed shut and he heard the heavy clunk of a lock shifting. The door creaked open.
“You lost me twenty bucks.” The man had a bulging neck and a tattoo of a hatchet on his forearm. He spat. “Thought you were a flaker for sure. Let’s see it.” He made a beckoning motion with a meaty hand.
“The money! Let me see it.”
“I don’t— I—” Marco steeled himself. “I have something for the third option.”
The thug’s eyes narrowed, then widened, and his face cracked into a toothy grin. “Never stops surprising me,” he said with a chuckle. “He’s in the back, you know where.” He gave Marco a hard slap on the shoulder. “Good luck buddy!” he said, then burst out laughing.
Marco walked through a short hall lined with crumbling bricks and entered a smoky bar. A handful of bulky men and tattooed women stood up from their drinks and pool games.
“Hey, Jax. You owe me twenty,” called a woman in a grey tank top.
“Double or nothing he’s not leaving alive,” answered Jax, still laughing.
Marco tried to ignore them, but he felt their eyes on his back as he passed by.
His first time here had been much the same. They’d snickered as he hurried out holding an envelope stuffed with cash, leaving behind only a promise. Six months later the debt was owed: the cash plus twenty percent, his life, or… something else. A third option.
Across the bar down a second hall was another door, clean and white with a silver knob and a bulb glowing above it.
He remembered the last time he’d been in that room, sitting at that tiny desk, only two feet separating his face from the boss’s. Nowhere to turn his gaze but down at the splintered table; that, or to lock his eyes with those cold black ones. The man’s persistent, knowing grin would have been friendly but for those eyes.
The sweat from Marco’s hand threatened to disintegrate the paper of the envelope in his pocket. Each step twisted his stomach, but he had no direction to go but forward. The chance for running was long past.
He’d considered it, on those painful nights in the weeks after Lauren left, when the weight of his debt started to sink in. But memories of that night when he’d borrowed the money kept him searching for another option.
He remembered the cold certitude, the nonchalance with which the boss promised Marco would die if he didn’t pay, and the list of names the boss had read off for him. Names of those who’d tried and failed. It was sickeningly long.
Weeks later, after the desperate rush to deal with Lauren, he looked up some of the names he’d remembered.
Dead, found stabbed in a back alley. Dead, sunk at the bottom of the river. Dead, suicide by hanging.
There was no question he had to pay, but the money was all gone.
Marco swallowed, his saliva like a lump of cement. He raised a fist up to the white door. He wanted to turn and flee back through the bar, out the exit, and back home to his desk, where he could tear open the envelope and read the contents. But survival made him knock.
“Come,” said a scratchy voice.
Marco opened the door.
The boss looked up at him, grinning as ever, his forehead wrinkled, his brown hair sparse. He sat in his cushioned chair behind the same small desk, empty but for the revolver resting in the center of it.
Marco’s seat was not close to the desk this time. It was positioned six feet back and sat on a blue tarp spread out across the floor.
“Sit.” The boss gestured to the chair, then folded his hands in front of him.
The tarp crinkled beneath his feet as he made his way to the simple folding chair. He sat, an island in a sea of blue plastic.
The boss glanced at his watch. “Judging by the hour and your nervous state, I presume you have not brought me my money.”
Marco shrunk under his cold eyes. All he could do was shake his head.
“How did the treatment go?”
“She… didn’t make it.” It was raining when she died. Fat drops smacking on the windows as the orderlies rushed in and the heart monitor screeched.
The barest smile. “How unfortunate. It would have been poetic if you’d traded life for life.” He picked up the gun. “Very kind of you to save me the trouble of hunting you down, though.”
“No! I… brought something.” Marco pulled the bulging envelope from his pocket and held it up in a shaking hand. “I’ve got something for the… the third option.”
“Ah, the third option.” The boss grinned and returned the gun to the table. “Bring me something that you value more than the money you owe, and I’ll take it instead. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Convenient. It could be anything, as long as it means more to you than my money did. Do you know why I make such an offer to my debtors?”
Marco swallowed. “So… they don’t run?”
“Yes,” the boss said with a chuckle. “A sliver of hope for the damned to latch onto, a chance at life when they know fleeing is certain death. You knew this, and yet you are here, sitting at my command, awaiting death.”
Marco’s mouth went dry and his skin cold.
The boss cracked a smile at his reaction. “I am, however, a man of my word. I will consider your offer. I do hope it isn’t a family heirloom you’ve swiped that you ‘just couldn’t bear to sell.’ I get a lot of those.” The boss leaned forward. “So? What have you brought me? Convince me of its value to you.”
Marco held the bundle in his lap, looking down at it. He lifted it open and ran his finger across the smaller envelopes within.
“Your dead wife,” the boss interrupted flatly.
“Yes.” Marco thought back to her scribbling away in the hospital bed, turning her back when he tried to look and chiding him for being a spoilsport. He remembered the churning in his gut when he saw the wispy hair on the back of her head. “She wrote these for me.”
“And?” The boss made an impatient gesture. “What are they?”
“Letters — to me. She wrote them as she was… dying.” Marco slipped out one of the smaller envelopes and looked at it. Hand-drawn hearts and flowers covered the surface, and the words “Don’t be sad, Muffin!” in the center.
“Interesting,” the boss said, grinning slightly. “It appears, in a fashion, that you are offering me the very thing you purchased with my money. But what reason could you have to value these letters so much?”
Marco ran his fingers over the inked words on the sealed envelope. She was inside calling out to him, her voice muted by the paper walls. “Because I haven’t read them.”
“She wrote them for me to read later.” Marco swallowed. “There is one for each month for the next six months, then one a year for the next five years, then one to read after I’ve forgotten her, she said.”
“Ahh, I see. How romantic.” The boss placed a hand on the gun. “So you traded your life for a chance to save hers, and now you wish to trade what remains of her life for a chance to save yours. Give them to me, and I will consider.”
“I…” The envelopes felt heavy in his hands, packed full of her love and thoughts and cares.
The boss raised the gun. “Of course, if you are having second thoughts, you still have, oh,” he glanced at his watch, “ten minutes with which to read as much as you can before I shoot you.”
Marco squeezed the package and swallowed the lump in his throat. He wanted to tear them all open and read them right there. He wanted to know her thoughts and imagine her voice speaking the words to him. He wanted to have the last remains of her with him, in his memory. But survival held him back.
He stood up, his steps crumpling on the tarp. He placed the stuffed envelope on the boss’s desk and sat back down, a cold emptiness swelling in his stomach.
The boss plucked an envelope out at random and turned it over in his hands. “For October,” he read. “How organized.”
Marco cringed as the boss tore the envelope open and slid out the folded pages.
The boss scanned the handwritten text, chuckling every so often. “How very touching,” he said. “Are you sure you don’t want to read it?”
“I…” Marco clenched his fists and stared at the letter. Then his eyes shifted to the handgun resting heavy and silent on the table. He looked down the black void of the barrel. “No.”
Cold eyes locked with his for just a moment, then the boss reached into his pocket, and Marco heard the characteristic tink of a Zippo lighter opening, and the scratch of the flint. The boss waved the flame under the paper and Marco leaped to his feet, sitting down an instant later, before the boss could even reach for the gun. Marco gripped the edges of his seat as tears rolled down his cheeks. The boss watched him with glinting eyes and let the flame lick the paper. The pages curled and blackened, falling to ash on the table.
The boss picked up another envelope at random and tore it open. “December this time, I’m sure she’s wishing you a merry Christmas. Want to read this one?”
She used to hide a note in his stocking as they packed the decorations away, something for him to find and read the next year. He wanted to read the letter, needed to. But he said “No,” and watched it join the black heap on the boss’s desk.
“I wonder if one of these months contains your anniversary,” said the boss. “I suppose I’ll find out. How exciting.” He chose another. “February, ah, Valentines. This one is sure to be sappy. Care to read it?”
He remembered how she professed to hate the holiday, but still grinned ear to ear when he gave her chocolates. “No,” he choked, and the fire leaped up.
November, January, March — he could only shake his head in tears.
As the letters for 2014 and ‘15 burned, he felt sick and cold. ‘16, ‘17, ‘18 — remorse and resentment burned down to a glowing coal of anger, and he found himself staring at the gun.
“And now we come to the last one,” the boss said, turning the envelope in his hands. “For when you’ve forgotten me,” he read. “Well, you weren’t ever going to read this one anyway, were you? But don’t you wonder what parting words she has for you, knowing that you’ve moved on and are well without her? She wants to say goodbye, don’t you want to oblige her?”
Marco opened his mouth to utter the word again, but the boss held up his hand.
“I know this must be important to you, so I’ll offer you a little deal. I’ll take three bullets out from this gun and spin the chamber. Then I’ll pull the trigger. If you live, you can leave with this envelope. I won’t even open it.”
A coin flip, a dice roll. His life left to chance. The letter screamed at him, but he couldn’t.
“Of course you can’t,” said the boss. The light of the flame glinted in his dark eyes.
The boss brushed the collected pile of ashes to the floor and folded his hands on the desk again.
“Well,” he said with a small smile. “That was fun, wasn’t it.”
Marco realized his hands were still clenched, his fists white. His face was wet with tears. He tried to relax, opening his hands and placing them on his knees. His surroundings came back to him: the thugs out in the bar, the blue tarp, the gun.
“This is one of the few times I have been repaid satisfactorily with the third option,” the boss continued. “I have repossessed that which you purchased with my money; in this case, the last days of your dear wife, condensed into paper and ink. It gives me satisfaction to know that I possess these things, and you never will. I know her secrets and wishes, and you do not. Perhaps you could say that I own her.” He stood and held eye contact with Marco for a long moment, then turned to face the small bookshelf behind his desk. “You may go.”
The gun lay waiting in the center of the desk. If he was quick he could reach it, snatch it up cold and heavy in his hands and unload into the back of the boss’s head. The bullets would tear through the memories of Lauren, erasing them. She wouldn’t have wanted anyone to read her thoughts but Marco.
But the thugs in the bar were surely armed, and they were many. Even if he managed to escape, he’d be a murderer.
He felt himself stand and walk off the tarp, away from the desk.
He chose survival.
He opened the door and stepped out into the bar. The tepid, smoky air passed through him, swirling in the hollow of his chest.
“Hey Jax you owe me forty!” called the woman in the tank top.
He continued up the hall and Jax opened the door for him.
“Double or nothin he’s dead in a week,” said Jax. The door slammed before Marco could hear the reply.
Marco stood in the alley, rain pattering on the pavement and dampening his skin.
The rain came down harder.